WASHINGTON — The Bush administration asked Congress on Wednesday for $42 billion more next year for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an increase that would raise spending on the wars to $189 billion in 2008 — and to more than $600 billion for Iraq alone since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
War spending would be higher in 2008 than any year since the Iraq war began in March 2003. The Iraq war's total cost is approaching that of the 1964-73 Vietnam War's estimated total of $518 billion, in 2007 dollars.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the total for Iraq didn't include indirect costs such as veterans' care or the ultimate costs of long-term involvement, which the Congressional Budget Office has said could exceed $2 trillion.
"That's quite a burden this president is leaving to our grandchildren," Byrd said at a hearing at which top administration officials made their case for more money. Byrd, who's opposed the war from the beginning, wants Congress to restrict war funding as a way to wind down U.S. involvement there.
"This committee will not — N-O-T — rubber-stamp every request submitted by the president," Byrd said.
However, many members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, fear that cutting off money for the war would be the wrong way to change course because American troops might be denied the supplies and protection they need.
There's strong support in Congress, for example, for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles, which greatly increase the chances of soldiers surviving huge blasts from improvised explosives. More than a quarter of the $42 billion request — $11 billion — would pay for 7,000 more MRAPs.
The war so far has cost the lives of 3,801 Americans, and more than 27,000 have been wounded, while many thousands of Iraqi civilians and government security forces have been killed.
The Pentagon estimated in 2002 that the Iraq war would cost $50 billion, though the president's then-economic adviser, Lawrence Lindsey, estimated that costs could run as high as $200 billion. White House officials called Lindsey's estimate "premature," and he left the administration later that year.
Bush requested $141.7 billion in February for the Iraq and Afghan wars in fiscal year 2008, which begins Monday. In July he requested $5.3 billion more for MRAPs. The $42 billion he sought Wednesday brings the 2008 request to $189 billion. Byrd said Iraq's costs alone would exceed $600 billion if this request were approved.
In a report this month, Steven M. Kosiak of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a research group, said the Iraq war's cost would "almost certainly surpass the cost of the Vietnam War by the end of next year." He estimated that Vietnam cost the United States $518 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars.
Byrd asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates what President Bush meant when he said the United States might be involved in Iraq for 50 years, just as it had remained in South Korea for five decades after the end of hostilities there.
Gates said Bush was referring to a long-term agreement worked out with the Iraqis that would involve only a "small fraction" of the number of American forces there today. The length of the commitment would depend on how the Iraqi government develops and on conditions in the Middle East, Gates said.
"The purpose of that kind of longer-term presence would be to continue the fight against al Qaida, prevent foreign intervention, and train and equip Iraqi forces. It would be a very different kind of mission than our troops have today," Gates said.
Byrd allowed members of the antiwar group Code Pink to cheer while he spoke at the beginning of the hearing, but later slammed down his gavel and warned them after they shouted while Gates and other administration officials were speaking. Byrd eventually ordered security staffers to escort the protesters from the hearing room.
The $42 billion would include:
_ $6 billion for Army and Marine combat forces in Iraq.
_ $9 billion for equipment and technology.
_ $6 billion for training and equipment to improve the deployment readiness of American Army and National Guard units.